How long is long enough?

17 Jul

What is the right length for a story?

How long is a piece of string?

Believe it or not, there IS a correlation between those two ambiguous questions. There are multitudinous answers to each, any of which is 100% correct.

One long-time answer to the first questions is – however long it takes to tell the story properly. Well, that’s okay, as far as it goes, but some stories just simply demand thousands and thousands of words, and others can’t be bothered to stretch themselves out beyond the bare minimum.

In the ‘olden days’ (sorry!) when printing was done with printing presses (not a computer), a sheet of paper would be rather on the large side, and after printing on both sides, would then be folded and cut (maybe) into smaller book-sized pages. These pages were known as a ‘folio’ or ‘signature’ and would hold separate printed pages in multiples of 8. Some folios were those 8 pages (both sides) while some might be 16, 32 or even 64. Thus a book would be perhaps 184 pages or 222. If the story didn’t quite fit into that exact size, the font might be enlarged or shrunk, and margins would get the same treatment, but eventually, if it still wouldn’t fit – words would be cut. Or added.

We’ve all read books like that – they were so rushed at the end, we were left spinning by the velocity! Or it was so fluffy, you might have thought you were in padded cell. Neither was ideal, but that tradition had carried on very well for several centuries

(The above is my simplified explanation of a highly-technical system. There’s more to it than just this, trust me. For a more accurate and complex explanation visit the American Library Association.)

The upstart 20th century however, turned that wonderful old system upside-down and inside-out with the invention of the computer. Indeed, there are still printed books that conform to that tradition, but the possibility of finding ‘uncut’ pages is now a rarity. (There once were special ‘book knives for’ cutting the pages, and these are now a highly-prized antique!) With the advent of POD printing, a book can be as long (or as short) as it needs to be.  So other criteria for judging length has now entered the picture.  E-books have changed the book world even more.  Screen size, adjustable fonts, any number of factors can now be considered, and are.

So. Back to the original question.

What is the right length for a story?

Now that we know a book can be almost any length you want, the determining factor is STORY.

Some stories demand thousands of words, while some are happy with mere hundreds.

In my humble opinion, I think the minimum for a full-length novel – that means fiction! – should be 50,000 words. That gives you a reasonable amount of space to tell a good (if not great) story. It depends a lot on your writing style, as well. Sparse? Descriptive? Grandiose? Whatever.  Non-fiction, by the way, has its own requirements. We’re talking strictly fiction here.

Believe it or not, there are some rules.  There are different titles/categories for fiction length: short story, novelette, novella and novel. Clever, eh?  Each publisher (including you) can bend these descriptions to suit their own purposes. One publisher (mine, for instance) posts these requirements:

Under 7,500 for the Short Story category
Between 7,500 and 17,500 for the Novelette category
Between 17,500 and 40,000 for the Novella category
Over 40,000 for the Novel category.

Another one is a bit more definitive:
Their short story is  1,000 to 7500 words.
Novelette is 7500 to 20,000.
Novella is 20,000 to 50,000.
And a full-fledged novel is 50,000 to 110,000.
But they also have an additional category – Sequels and Epics  — 110,000 and up!  This would certainly include Fantasy which can easily wander over the 300,000 word count!

Another site lists Flash fiction as up to 1000 words, with short story as 1001 to 4000, and long short story as 4001 to 8000.

Of course, if you happen to be Stephen King or Ken Follett, these rules mean absolutely nothing to any publisher!  (Note: those names are already taken, so don’t try to borrow either one.)

Therefore:  how much do each (or any) of these stories cost?

Remember the second question above? There’s your answer!

As always, comments are welcome at: bookmechanic@gmail.com

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